Early Polly: Inventing the Sitcom

Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals (1912-58) was along with George McManus’ Newlyweds and Bringing Up Father and George Herriman’s Family Upstairs one of the pioneers of a situation comedy genre that would eventually define radio and TV. There were progenitors, to be sure, like vaudevillian skits and theatrical parlor room comedy. But it was in the comics pages of the first two decades of the last century that the major tropes and situations of the genre developed. The kooky neighbors, generation gaps, spousal miscommunication and jealousy, and especially the aggrieved and diminished father figure – all took root here and were developed by Sterrett, Herriman and McManus, among others.

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Lance: Warren Tufts’ Beautiful…Strange America

Lance (1955-60) was Warren Tufts’ masterful exploration of mid-19th Century American expansion, and it remains among the most breathtaking uses of the newspaper comics medium in its history. Tufts, who had previously fictionalized the Gold Rush in his wonderful Casey Ruggles (1949-55), was a self-taught savant of realistic illustration and frontier history. Lance embodies some of the signature qualities of the American newspaper strip. Visually, and much like Winsor McCay, Cliff Sterrett, Frank King, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond before him, and scouted new ways of using the full-page Sunday format and especially color to evoke emotions and a sense of place. And like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Tufts’ rendered a highly personal, idiosyncratic and often weird vision of America and humanity. Lance demonstrates how such individual and offbeat perspectives were still possible in the comic strip format, and could make this medium much different from other modern mass media that had become corporatized and collaborative.

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They Had Faces Then: Close-Ups, 50s Photo-Realism and the Psychological Turn

Stan Drake, The Heart of Juliet Jones

The turn to photo-realism in the adventure comics after WWII is well-documented and obvious in any review of the major strips. Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, Warren Tufts’ Casey Ruggles and Lance, Leonard Starr’s On Stage, Stan Drake’s Heart of Juliet Jones, John Cullen Murphy’s Big Ben Bolt are just some of the clearest examples. The stylistic foundation had already been set in the 1930s, of course by Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant). They moved adventure strips away from the more expressionist modes of Gould and Gray, or the cartoonish remnants of Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs and Capt. Easy) or the sketchy illustrator style of a Frank Godwin (Connie). .But it is really in the post-war period that we see a clear ramping up of fine line visual detailing, naturalist figure modeling and movement, as well as full adoption of cinematic techniques.

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“Papa Love Mama?”: The Quiet Desperation of Mr. and Mrs.

Clare Briggs’ contemplation of marital tension, Mr. and Mrs. (1919-1963) has always fascinated me both because of the harsh tenor of the strip itself and its source. When comics historians bother to remember Briggs (1874-1930) it is as quaint master of the nostalgic slice-of-life panels of small town childhood (The Days of Real Sport, When a Feller Needs a Friend, Aint’ It a Grand and Glorious Feeling). He is also credited with pioneering the format of the daily strip with recurring characters in A. Piker Clerk (1904) at Chicago’s American. But to contemporary newspaper readers in the 1910s and 1920s, he was among the best known, best-paid, and beloved of American cartoonists. His premature death in 1930 prompted both a single volume retrospective and a formidable seven-volume collection of his many strips.

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The Working Class Heroes of Clare Briggs

A shoe shine man enters his home after a long day’s work and boasts to his wife about his special talent for snapping his shine rag and using a better grade of polish. After work at a sign painter’s home, the practical artist extolls the superior quality of his brush and his unique mastery of curving letters. A park garbage cleaner muses on spearing newfangled gum wrappers and the challenges of cleaning up eggshells during picnic season. A soda jerk brags to his wife that his colleagues just can’t sling those mixed drinks as quickly as he. A street sweeper shows off to his wife the new brush with just the right heft and breadth for easier work, and then ponders his chances for promotion over “Jerry” who “is good at plain sweeping’ but he’s no good around telegraph poles.”

These scenarios of workingmen returning home at night and reflecting upon their craft was the conceit for Clare Briggs’ remarkable Real Folks at Home series of the 1920s. This was a deep dive into the nuances of pride, spousal support, small ambitions, respect for craft among the laboring classes for the most part. There were occasional forays into more vaunted professions like an orchestra conductor, opera singer, or baseball star. But largely Briggs was concerned with the hard-working manual laborers who may have been invisible to the white collar suburban classes to which many newspapers tried to expand their circulation after WWI. This was a regular celebration of the people who made towns and cities run, the dignity of work, and the native intelligence and thoughtfulness of “real folk.”

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Rip Kirby Introduces the 1950s

In the first days of Alex “Flash Gordon” Raymond’s post-WWII detective adventure Rip Kirby, it was clear the master was going to redefine the look of comic strip adventure. Day two of the March 1946 launch story speaks volumes about the influence Raymond was going to have on a decade of 50’s adventure style. The panel progression here is so engaging. The first two panels are energized so that you can almost feel the weight of the murder victim slump into Kirby’s arms and instantly change valence of the scene. And that final close up communicates the deadly reality of the situation by bringing us right into the complex reaction to beauty and death. The photo-realism is here, as is the increasing influence of cinematic points of view, timing, and close-ups. And arguably, the next decade would also see in comic strip adventure a turn inwards, toward psychological realism, the emotional lives of characters, that accompanied the more photographic style of the art. All of these elements would be deployed in different ways by Stan Drake in the Heart of Juliet Jones, Leonard Starr in On Stage, Warren Tufts in Casey Ruggles and Lance and John Cullen Murphy in Big Ben Bolt.

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Casey Ruggles: Beauty and Brutality, Fact and Fantasy

Warren Tufts (1925-1982) was a self-taught artist and historian of the mid-19th Century Westward migration, and he combined both avocations into two of the most compelling and distinct adventure strips of the 1950s. In Casey Ruggles (1949-1954) and Lance (1955-1960) he brought visual and historical realism to an otherwise romanticized vision of the West that flourished in post-WWII  pop culture. In Tuft’s West of the 1840s, settlers were as often selfish, greedy, cowardly, incompetent, sadistic and capriciously violent as they were an heroic forward guard of civilization and commerce. Tufts had a mixed view of human nature that allowed all of these qualities, good and bad, to coexist in many of his characters. 

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